Together They’re Heavy
Four Albums, Four Kinds of Heaviness

I have friends from every chapter of my life who won’t read this column because it’s not heavy enough.

These friends of mine will poke their heads into my cyber-realm whenever I review something like the new Megadeth, which I did recently, or bands like Mastodon and Pelican, which I do infrequently. But for the most part, they tell me the music I write about is just too wimpy for them. Where’s the muscle, they ask? Where is the nigh-unstoppable hammer of the gods that is real, unadulterated heaviness? And what is that – is that a banjo? What the hell, man?

And every once in a while, I feel the need to re-establish my heaviness cred. But the truth is, I’m not sure what the word “heavy” really means anymore. To my 30-something ears, the anguished beauty of, say, Low’s new album is heavier than anything Sepultura has ever done, or at least it leaves a bigger impact when it strikes. “Heavy” has long been a euphemism for loud, fast and angry music, but when heavy metal started, it was thicker and slower and didn’t have much to do with the “play a million notes as fast as you can” mentality that soon overtook it.

But can music that isn’t considered metal still be heavy? What does that word mean?

For example, no one would confuse the sunshine pop of the Polyphonic Spree with heavy metal, and yet, the band themselves have used the word “heavy” to describe their sound, most notably in the title of their second album, Together We’re Heavy. Speaking strictly in terms of pounds and ounces, they’re the heaviest band on earth – the Spree has 24 members, incorporating strings, horns and choirs as an integral part of their sound.

The Spree is the vision of former Tripping Daisy frontman Tim DeLaughter, another one of those high-voiced guys who does Wayne Coyne a hundred times better than Wayne Coyne does. His masterplan was to create a massive, expansive sound, one that would explode his little pop gems from the inside out. The Spree doesn’t use strings and horns the way many bands do – as ornamentation, as window dressing. The violins and trumpets are key components of the Spree’s thing, and the end result, at least on Together We’re Heavy, is enormous, almost monolithic.

But is it heavy? In that hippie sense, the Spree has always been heavy – they sing about love and peace on nearly every song, and often sound like they’re reaching all 48 of their hands out, trying to take as many people as they can to some grand utopia. But in a musical sense, the Spree always tempered their sheer mass with long passages of orchestral beauty. Together We’re Heavy is a masterpiece, but it’s too spaced out and too blissful to be truly heavy.

Apparently DeLaughter saw that as a problem, because the band’s third album, The Fragile Army, takes everything the Spree has been and punches it up. You can tell right away that this is a heavier Spree – DeLaughter has ditched the colored robes the band has always worn in favor of black military-style uniforms, leather boots and all. He’s also done away with the expansiveness, compressing the band’s full-to-bursting sound into quick-hitting salvos, with none of the instrumental frippery that characterized their prior discs.

And it works. The Fragile Army is fast, upbeat and exhilarating, and what DeLaughter has sacrificed in dynamics, he’s gained in propulsive force. On first listen, it seems stripped down, with most songs coming in right around four minutes, and the focus squarely on the voice and melodies. But listen again, and you’ll hear that DeLaughter hasn’t taken anything away at all, he’s just squeezed it into place. The Spree still sounds like a giant in the world of men, but this time, the giant is leaner and meaner, faster and more agile.

Just listen to “Get Up and Go,” the orchestral rock song DeLaughter has been trying to write for years. The brass sections are given equal footing with the squealing guitars, and the resulting one-two punch is awesome to behold. The title song sounds like it will be slower and more naked, but it evolves quickly into a psychedelic anthem. There are a pair of slower songs – “We Crawl” and “Overblow Your Nest” – but both crescendo into sky-high stunners, the choir backing up DeLaughter perfectly.

Admittedly, there is a certain sameness to these 11 new songs, so it’s good that the album clocks in at a nice, compact 46 minutes. There were a couple of directions DeLaughter could have taken his grand experiment after Together We’re Heavy – he could have gone further into an orchestral prog direction, composing 30-minute songs, which would have been interesting, or he could have done what he did, which is find some way of reining it in without pulling it back. The Fragile Army is a very big small, a bunch of tiny tunes performed by the largest band on the planet, and as a next step, it’s a winner.

But is it heavy? How about this – can something so polished and produced ever be truly heavy? Didn’t heavy music start out with working-class kids in garages, making as much noise as they could? The Polyphonic Spree has been working on The Fragile Army for more than a year. Isn’t heavy music – you know, real rock – supposed to be raw and raucous?

The White Stripes are, in many respects, the exact opposite of the Polyphonic Spree – they’re a minimalist guitar-drums duo from Detroit, notorious (at least in my house) for putting in the least amount of effort possible and still making listenable records. A beat, a blues-metal guitar riff, a wailing vocal and they’re done.

Their sixth album (and Warner Bros. debut), Icky Thump, took Jack and Meg White three weeks to complete. You may think that’s pretty quick – it took longer than that just to set the levels on some of my favorite records – but for the Stripes, that’s a marathon session. And listening to the record, you’ll wonder what took them so long. The sound is crisper and cleaner than on past Stripes discs, and there’s a bit of overdubbing, with Jack playing an organ on most of the tracks along with his guitar, but mostly, this is a White Stripes album: loud, dirty and bluesy.

At first blush, it’s a bit of a step back from 2005’s Get Behind Me Satan, the most experimental Stripes record to date, with its pianos, marimbas and Queen-like cycle of styles. Icky Thump (a bastardization of ecky-thump, a British expression of surprise, as well as an apt description of Meg White’s lumbering drum work) takes a few detours, but sticks mostly to the duo’s Zeppelin-inspired riffing and roaring. “Bone Broke” could have appeared on the back half of Physical Graffiti, and the title track shifts rhythmic gears half a dozen times, a la “Black Dog.” They even skip forward to Robert Plant’s solo work for “I’m Slowly Turning Into You,” a tune that could fit nicely on Pictures at Eleven.

As always, though, it’s the diversions – the less heavy tracks – that provide the most enjoyment. “Prickly Thorn, But Sweetly Worn” is a Scottish jig, complete with bagpipes and mandolins, and it leads into the fascinating interlude “St. Andrew (This Battle is In the Air),” on which Meg White intones poetry in her girlish voice. “Rag and Bone,” a bluesy stomp, finds the two posing as junk dealers looking for a bargain, and it’s kind of hilarious, if a bit filler-ish. And “I’m a Martyr for My Love for You” may be the prettiest song Jack White has yet written.

But best of all here is the one that makes the most use of that new major-label money, an ass-kicking version of the Patti Page number “Conquest.” The Stripes turn the song into a full-blooded Mariachi throwdown, as if preparing a submission for Robert Rodriguez’ next south-of-the-border shoot-em-up. As the horns blare, an army of Jack Whites tell a battle-of-the-sexes tale with something approaching polish. This tune, explosive as it is, may have taken up the majority of the recording time to get right.

So is Icky Thump heavy? Well, it tries to be here and there, but as the Stripes grow up, they’re moving further and further away from the raw blues of their first few records. I never thought I’d say this about the Detroit duo, but they’re too interesting, too idiosyncratic, too ambitious to settle for just being heavy. Icky Thump is a ride, one that brings back the guitars, but keeps the genre-hopping of Get Behind Me intact. It’s probably their best work, and at this stage in their career, also probably the heaviest album they’re likely to make.

But how about a more single-minded band? You’re not going to hear a lot of different styles on an album by Dream Theater, for example – you’re going to get technically dazzling prog-metal, and that’s about it. Dream Theater are equally influenced by the expansive compositions of Yes and the crunching riffage of Metallica, and they definitely fit a more conventional definition of “heavy.”

While it’s true that you know what you’re going to get with DT, lately they’ve seemed a bit more restless than usual. Following their opus Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence, which featured the 45-minute title track, the band made Train of Thought, a pure, punishing metal record, and then Octavarium, a summation of their career that was so scattered it felt like a case of multiple personality disorder. It’s been a while since they’ve knocked one out of the park – since 1999’s Scenes From a Memory, in fact.

So it’s about damn time they made something like Systematic Chaos, their finest and fullest record since the early days. Unlike on the tired and confused Octavarium, the band seems revitalized here, more comfortable with their place as the standard-bearers for this bombastic sound. This is Dream Theater at their peak, for better and for worse – you get some very inventive riffing, some phenomenal musicianship, but you also get long (looooong) stretches of instrumental wankery, and the over-the-top vocals of James Labrie, singing (as usual) some inane, artless lyrics.

But as stated before, you know what you’re going to get, and for the first time in a long while, what you get is the best this band has to offer. The record opens and closes with “In the Presence of Enemies,” a 25-minute epic broken up into bookends a la “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” only with more ‘80s-metal guitar solos. It’s a fantastic Dream Theater piece, chock full of melody and technical wizardry – in fact, this album renews the band’s focus on melody, which had lately been obscured by their lack of direction. They know exactly what they want on Systematic Chaos, and there’s rarely a minute that goes by on this very long album when they’re not doing something interesting, if not mindboggling.

There is some diversity here, although it is Dream Theater diversity – both “Constant Motion” and “The Dark Eternal Night” conjure up early Metallica, with their jackhammer riffs and snarling (and, admittedly, somewhat silly) vocals, while both “Repentance” and “The Ministry of Lost Souls” stretch their slower, more ambient grooves out past 10 minutes. “Prophets of War” continues their unfortunate obsession with Muse, down to the arpeggiated keyboards, and is the record’s weakest moment, but a strong, melodic tune like “Forsaken” makes up for a lot.

The secret here is a return to the sense of dynamics that marked early DT albums – in a way, this album is their best in a long time because it’s their least heavy. Even though quite a lot of it takes a traditional metal approach, and much of it is fast, loud and uncompromising, just as much of it is slow and tuneful, and it’s the contrast that makes the difference. Even within one song – “In the Presence of Enemies Part II” begins as a spacey dirge, but over the next 10 minutes, blossoms into a chugging powerhouse, drummer Mike Portnoy and guitarist John Petrucci locking into a pummeling groove.

So is it heavy? Well, yeah, but in a way, it’s less heavy than a solidly focused effort like the Spree’s album. And when it’s over, like with most Dream Theater albums, it won’t stick with you – you’ll have a vague memory of having your musical mind blown by five of the most accomplished rock musicians currently playing, but nothing will hit you emotionally. It’s not heavy enough to leave a mark.

But hell, do you need your music to wound you all the time? Is it possible to be bone-crushingly heavy and still fun? I say it is, and so does my favorite of these four albums, Devin Townsend’s Ziltoid the Omnisicent.

Wait, what? Ziltoid the what now? What the hell is this? Well, listen to this description, and tell me this isn’t an album you just need to hear. Devin Townsend is a Canadian supergenius best known for his extreme metal band, Strapping Young Lad. He’s back to solo work, and this is his concept album about an alien named Ziltoid the Omniscient (natch), on an interstellar quest for the universe’s best cup of coffee. (“You have five of your Earth minutes. Make it perfect!”) When he doesn’t find it, he decides to blow up the Earth, and the story is about what happens next.

Want a taste of Ziltoid? Townsend has also created a series of puppet shows starring the snaggle-toothed invader – search YouTube for “Ziltoid the Omniscient” and you’ll find them. Yeah, puppet shows. The “what the fuck” factor is pretty damn high on this album.

But the actual record is, honest to God, great. Over a lengthy career, Townsend has pioneered a style of ambient metal that virtually no one else is doing. It’s heavy as all hell, with precise guitar-bass-drums riffing as its base, but it’s also blissed-out and atmospheric, treated guitars and synths providing an otherworldly, placid component that shouldn’t work, but does. Ziltoid is perhaps Townsend’s finest ambient metal record – amidst the jokey dialogue and sound effects, he’s crafted some genuinely powerful music for this bizarre radio play.

Take “By Your Command,” the first proper song. Over nine minutes, it morphs from a screaming metal explosion to a sound as vast as space itself, which segues into the absolutely devastating “Ziltoidia Attaxx!!” (Spelling and punctuation preserved.) But then there is “Solar Winds,” a moment of reflection that achieves actual beauty. You may be wondering what a genuinely gorgeous song like “Solar Winds” is doing on this album, but that’s what’s so cool about it – the Ziltoid concept allows for anything. It’s like the cheesy rock operas Frank Zappa used to make – you wouldn’t expect something as touching as “Watermelon in Easter Hay” on a sleaze-fest like Joe’s Garage, and that’s why it works.

Throughout this record, Townsend balances his metal and ambient sides perfectly, as if he knows that both styles can be incredibly heavy. Ziltoid the Omniscient is easily the heaviest of the four albums on tap this week, but it’s also the most fun, and most completely successful. Townsend sets up an anything-can-happen atmosphere, so when the storyline disintegrates at the end and we discover it was all a daydream in the mind of a coffee shop worker, it still makes perfect sense.

Whoa, wait, what? The whole album takes place inside someone’s head? Wow, that’s… heavy, man.

A quick story before I go. I sent links to a couple of the Ziltoid puppet shows to my friend Chris L’Etoile a while back, and he watched them with his two-year-old son Jeremiah. This is the email he sent to me right after that:

“So I showed that to Jeremiah…
ME: Oh no! What are we gonna do?

Suffice it to say, I will never erase that email.

Next week, a series of single reviews starts up, beginning with the new Ryan Adams, Easy Tiger. Also coming up, reviews of the Click Five and the Beastie Boys.

See you in line Tuesday morning.